Inequality runs deeper than income

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Abigail McKnight

Alex Prats

The eight richest people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.

Startling facts like this one, brought to international attention through Oxfam’s Even It Up! campaign, have made inequality an issue that is rapidly rising up policy makers’ in-trays.  Rising economic inequality in rich and middle income countries has shaped the research agendas of many social scientists and research teams over the last few decades.  The World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the International Monetary Fund, institutions which only a few years ago hardly considered inequality as part of their remit, are now busy setting out policy agendas to address the issue. 


Publicly aware

It isn’t just the policy makers who are paying more attention, the causes and aftermath of the 2007/08 financial crisis have created a greater public awareness of, and outrage at, the high (and rising) concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. And this public outrage seems to have been catalyst for change.  Oxfam has been at the forefront of embracing this change, by both highlighting extreme inequality trends and expanding their focus to include inequality. For Oxfam, fighting inequality has now become a priority, for both intrinsic –it is often the result of social injustice- and instrumental reasons –left unchecked, a world without poverty seems unlikely.  

The justification for this twin approach – tackling inequality and alleviating poverty – was shown by recent research which highlighted the link between economic inequality and poverty. Further research at LSE is now seeking to help us to understand why increases in economic inequality are associated with increases in poverty. 


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It’s about more than just money

Whilst the increased attention on inequality is welcomed by many, the debate has tended to be quite narrowly focussed on economic inequality, and in particular, on income inequality.  Clearly income plays a central role in shaping the quality of individuals’ lives and determining overall well-being, but inequality is also keenly felt across a number of other important aspects of life. 

Leading thinkers, including Amartya Sen, have argued that instead of focusing on economic means to assess the quality of individuals’ lives, we should concentrate on what people are actually able to do. For example, to be able to enjoy freedom of expression or to be physically secure. 

For example, people may vary in their ability to convert income into things that they value; people with disabilities may have to spend more to enjoy the same standard of living as people without disabilities.  And social norms may prevent women from being able to choose who they marry, may affect their ability to have a say on how family income is spent, and even put them at greater risk of domestic violence. 

A sole focus on income inequality can overlook greater impact on standard of living, such as health inequalities. For example, although income inequality is considerably higher in New Zealand than in the Czech Republic, the Czech Republic has much greater health inequality (average life expectancy in New Zealand is 81.6 years compared with 78.8 years in the Czech Republic, and life expectancy for men in the Czech Republic is, on average, 6.1 years shorter than for women, compared to just 3.7 years in New Zealand).


Widening our scope

This is where our work comes in. We have gathered a team of researchers from LSE and Oxfam have been working to develop an Inequality Framework which is multi-dimensional, theoretically-grounded, and easy to apply.  Oxfam was looking for a Framework to help their in-country teams and local partners to adopt a comprehensive approach to measuring and analysing inequalities, a process which is crucial to design and implement activities and campaigns for inequality reduction. And LSE researchers were keen to explore how their research could be put to practical use.  Working as Visiting Atlantic Fellows has allowed the team to work together to build this framework and its companion toolkit. 

It has also helped us to learn from each other about different institutional cultures, working practices and patterns, a learning curve which can be challenging but we believe that the Framework will better as a result. 


Next steps

We will soon be making the Framework freely available, along with associated user guides, on a new website which will be funded by an LSE Knowledge Exchange grant.

 We see this as just the beginning. We will be explaining exactly how the framework and toolkit can be used in the next post of this series. Our final post will then reflect on the results of two pilots which are currently being conducted in Guatemala and Spain.

We hope that activists, academics and policy-makers, be they based in the North and South, will put the inequality framework into practice to build more effective, focussed campaigns.


The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.